Glamour of the Grammar: A stiff-necked people

Hebrew has a convenient one-word answer to "why is the sky blue?" Stam.

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit:)
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
(photo credit: )
Hebrew has a convenient one-word answer to "why is the sky blue?" Stam. That is "just because" or "for no good reason" or "it just is." (For the purposes of probing Hebrew, we'll ignore the meteorological nuance that the sky's hue actually has an explanation.) This week we'll take a look at this common Hebrew word, and at its opposite, as well. Stam, ultimately from the root for "closed," is the easier of the two, so we'll start there. It can be a one word answer - "Why did you choose that color?" "Stam" - in which case it means "for no particular reason." Or it can be a modifier with adjectival force. For example, zeh stam dugma, "this is just an example," or zeh stam nahash, "this is just a common, ordinary, garden variety snake." I say "modifier with adjectival force" because stam comes before the noun, where adjectives in Hebrew do not generally belong, and also because it doesn't agree in number or gender with the noun it modifies, but mostly because there's a third possible way to use stam. It can be a real adjective, in which case it has roughly the sense of the slang English "random." "It's a random thought" in colloquial American English means that the thought has no particular purpose, not that it's truly random. The Hebrew is zot mahshava stamit. There's also another word stam, this one an acronym for s'farim (books [of Torah]), tefillin (technically called "phylacteries" in English, a translation that doesn't tend to enlighten), and mezuzot (originally "doorposts," now metonymically what's on the doorposts). It's almost always used in the phrase sofer stam, which means an expert in writing Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot. There's also ktav stam, which is the writing used in those three. The two words stam shouldn't be confused, though they can be combined. An undistinguished and anonymous writer of mezuzot could be stam sofer stam. Finally, stam can be truly adverbial: stam hitztarafti is "I just came along, for no particular reason." However it's used, whether alone, adjectivally, or adverbially, it means basically the same thing, either "for no reason" or "nothing special." Next we turn to davka, which is a little harder. Originally it meant "precisely," though, it, too, has migrated in meaning, and dictionary definitions along the lines of "in spite" or "to spite" or "despite" aren't particularly helpful. But at its core, davka is the just the opposite of stam. Primarily an adverb, davka indicates clearness of purpose. Bati davka hayom means "I came today, and there was a good reason for it; it was no accident," while stam bati hayom means "I just happened to come today; I could equally have come any other day." (The word order difference between stam bati... and bati davka... is complicated.) Similarly, there's an innocent and a guilty answer to lama yesh l'cha ekdah? ("why do you have a pistol?"). Stam: "No particular reason. I wasn't planning on killing anyone if that's what you mean." And davka: "You bet I had a reason. I was planning to shoot someone." Because it highlights purpose or intent, davka can be used to negate a negative in a conversation. The answer to "you don't want ice cream?" can be davka ken: "yes, as a matter of fact I do." (The French use the more succinct "si" for this purpose.) What's interesting is this: Even though davka can be used to emphasize any purpose, the default reason or intent implied by davka is that of causing trouble. So while davka mahar means "tomorrow [and I have a good reason for choosing tomorrow]," in the absence of anything more concrete, the assumption is that choosing tomorrow will be unpleasant for someone. In fact, la'asot davka, that is, "to do davka," means "to be contrary." And here stam and davka can join forces. Ata stam oseh davka means "you're being contrary for no good reason" and the retort, ani davka oseh davka means "I'm being contrary on purpose." How convenient to have such a phrase. Though should we expect anything less from a people first described as stubborn and stiff-necked? The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.